Thursday, January 29, 2009

Solutions for a Green World

Green America has been working pretty tirelessly to promote some of the values Julia and I adhere to and extol on this blog: local and/or organic food, and sustainable living. The organization was promoting these things even before the US had a sympathetic government (that is, one without their anti-reason heads in the sand).

Now that the Obama administration is finally turning the US ship slowly back toward progressive policies (before, we hope, that ship turns into the Titanic), Green America's most recent newsletter looks at the simple, sensible changes and "7 Fixes from the Green Economy" that all societies need to focus on in order to move "from greed to green," as the writer says.

Simple doesn't mean easy. I've just finished reading The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler, all about the end of cheap fossil fuel energy, climate change, economic meltdowns, and people's woeful inability to cope rationally with crises; and let me tell you the future looks scary here. And challenging. Our only hopes, it seems, lie in rebuilding both the physical and social structures of our communities immediately, and in, frankly, maintaining hope and optimism. If we couldn't hope that the future can become better, we wouldn't become mothers.

Being a mother, I can't throw up my hands in despair. I'm pushing for significant energy changes in our home, have been supporting local farmers for years (still waiting for a source of dairy, goat or cow, I don't care ...), and am turning my time and talents more and more to build strength into the institutions that make my community breathe. For an introvert, that isn't an easy choice, or always a pleasant one. But for a mother whose child will face energy shortages and climate change, it's the only option.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Handmaid's Son

I never thought I'd be in the position of taking my son's books away. It's so 1984 or Darkness at Noon. Remove the books, remove their curiosity and intellectual stimulation, remove their questioning. But I had to (as all good dictators say); he's like a bottomless pit for kiddie literature and I've got other things to do (as all good authoritarians say -- shut up! I'm talking about making dinner).

Where's this coming from? Is it budding genius or just obsessive-compulsive-reading disorder? Okay, so my family's packed with voracious readers, and I know my in-laws read constantly. Me, I'll read absolutely everything. I discovered Proust and Harry Potter and read them together, finishing In Search of Lost Time and the first four Harry Potter books the same summer. I couldn't put either of them down, except to pick up the other. (Wanna know which one I've read again since?)

It seems to be something I've passed on to my 17-month-old. I know I'm bad, I know I'm an addict, but come on. This kid's insatiable. Morning to night, he brings me books to read. He lifts them up in the air and says, "lidilidalidlalidladi" or something like that, and then does a whole little body wiggle and satisfied giggle when I open the cover. And then he wants it all over again at the end. Today I kept a rough tally:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar (his favorite): 4 times, plus 3 aborted (sometimes he just likes to stop at the plums and start over), plus one reading from Daddy
The Very Busy Spider: 3 times
Goodnight Moon: 6 times plus twice from Daddy
Goodnight, Gorilla: 4 times plus once from Daddy
Moo, Baa, La La La!: 5 times plus twice from Daddy
The Runaway Bunny: 0. It's new and he doesn't like it yet. He will.
Various soft books about animals: 6 times (mostly the sheep and the cow)
Langendsheidt's German-English dictionary: half a page once
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: 1 1/2 pages

Really. I get tired of reading to him. He entertains himself just fine with blocks and balls and one drum that holds lots of things (who knew drums spent half their lives as container ships!), but the second I sit down to, say, work, or type an email or heaven forbid read a book myself, here we go with the "ladiladlidliadl"s. So I admit it. Today I became a paranoid dictator whose actions suppress imagination.

I was reminded sharply of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where women aren't allowed to read. All the shops are labeled with pictures so that 'normal' women who learned to read in the pre-authoritarian society have no words to fix on, and the new generations will never learn.

I have become one of those ruthless authoritarians. There is a pile of cheery little board books sitting on the kitchen counter, where my son can neither see them nor reach them, waiting to be burned so we can create a more placid populace.

Or I might just start over with them tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Knowledge is Power: How Monsanto is trying to keep us in ignorance about genetically "enchanced" dairy cows

Do consumers have a right to know what goes into their food? Do people have a right to know what they’re eating? Most importantly, do parents have a right to determine exactly what they’re feeding their kids?

The answer would seem to be an obvious yes. As Americans with busy lives, we’re used to scanning nutrition and ingredients labels to make educated decisions about what we do or don’t want to eat. But someone is waging a battle against this information, directed by massive corporations with cash and political clout, and it’s aimed directly at the local grocery store.

In a thinly veiled grass-roots campaign, Monsanto, the producer of genetically modified foods including Bovine growth hormone (known as rGHB or rbST), has led several states to pass or seriously deliberate laws that would make it illegal for farmers of hormone-free milk to label it as such. Using incomprehensible political power and access, the company has brainwashed legislators into believing it is bad for consumers to know what goes into their food. Why? Because a simple label stating that a jug of milk is “produced from cows free of growth hormones” might cause us to choose that milk over a label-free container. Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane says the hormone-free label “implies to consumers, who may or may not be informed on these issues, that there’s a health-and-safety difference between these two milks, that there’s ‘good’ milk and ‘bad’ milk, and we know that’s not the case.”

Do they? Do they know it absolutely? Enough to risk our children’s health? Considering that Monsanto has pressed genetically modified foods from corn to tomatoes on the American consumer and then insisted that we had no right to know what was modified and what wasn’t, I have a hard time trusting their claims of the milk’s safety.

There are two issues here. The first is Monsanto’s assertion that non-hormone-free milk is in no way worse for human consumption than the regular stuff. If the genetically modified hormone is perfectly safe, why is it banned by Canada, Australia, Japan, and every European country? I have little faith in the Food and Drug Administration’s impartiality in declaring the product healthy when so many other countries have banned it. And since growth hormones were only approved for U.S. dairy cows in 1994, I, as a consumer, have absolutely no faith that enough time has passed to see the long-term effects of these hormones on adults, much less on children.

The second issue is a far more basic right. No matter what the hormone-free label implies, consumers and parents still have a right to know what’s in their food. Does a “suitable for vegetarians” label imply that a vegetarian diet is better for you than a meat-eating one? Hardly.

I refuse to buy milk without a hormone-free label. That’s my right, as a consumer and as a mother. The further Monsanto pushes this issue in any state, the closer they drive me to buying milk from a farmer down the road, someone I can look in the face and trust. Because it seems I can’t trust my legislators to make the right decisions for my children’s health.

Pennsylvania was one of the first states to adopt a law against hormone-free labeling. A consumer outcry forced the state to reverse the ban. As mothers, our most basic duty to our children is to ensure the food they eat is safe as well as nutritious. If your legislators quietly try to strip you of the right to know your milk, fight back.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Selling Ourselves Short

Last week I had what has become an increasingly common conversation for me: child care. The expense of it, the lack of it, the quality of it. The talk followed a predictable pattern with a predictable conclusion. I'm going nuts, as is the mother I was talking with, but neither of us can quite afford full-time day care.

This isn't quite true. My husband and I could afford it if (iff, that is -- "if and only if")I went back to a full-time job. So. I can go back to the task of copy editing increasingly dissatisfying children's textbooks, a job I used to enjoy, but only because it was freelance and part-time and I could write on the side. This would mean doing what millions of other women do every day, getting up early, getting showered and dressed, getting my son up, dressed, fed, with diaper bag packed, ready to leave by 7:30 so we can all race to the day care center and then to our respective jobs.

Maybe it's selfish of me, but I don't think I can face that life. It seems overwhelmingly pointless, harried, and stressful, for my son as well as me. Given the two options, I think I'd rather let him sleep as long as he wants, and spend the day reading him Goodnight Moon a zillion times, making sure we all have nutritious meals, and, during his naptime, trying to squeeze in my dream of making my living as a writer.

That's given only those two options. But truly, like most Mothers with Brains I know, I want both. I want to have quality time with my child, and I want to have time to pursue my own intellectual development and freelance career.

What struck me after this recent conversation was a) the guilt that Mothers with Brains feel over wanting to spend money on child care in order to pursue things that might not necessarily bear financial fruit (although keeping ourselves from going berserk could be argued as a financial benefit), and b) the realization that, in complaining about full-time day care costing $15,000 a year, I and other mothers are selling short our own talents, activities, and value.

Honestly, is that all I'm worth? I read to my son constantly. I take him for walks and make sure he has a strong relationship with nature, ensure he learns to love fresh air and sunshine. I play with him. Not "development activities." Just play, stacking blocks, chasing a ball, whatever he feels like doing. I cook three meals a day that are generally organic, nutritious, often from locally grown produce (sometimes even grown by me), and hopefully super tasty. I keep the house tidy and clean, but not sterile. If my son is sick I nurture him and make chicken soup. I still breastfeed, a health benefit for him that's been calculated to have a value of about $30,000 a year. I take the cats to the vet and the cars to the mechanic. I volunteer time and writing skills to two organizations. I am on call to edit and shape the freelance efforts of various friends working on their writing. I keep the flow of community and family relationships going through letters, emails, and phone calls (I loathe talking on the phone, so really should get extra points for that). I play music for my son, sing to him, and help him play music, too. I try to speak to him in Russian sometimes.

All this is only worth $15,000 a year? You've got to be kidding me. The Salary Survey calculates that a typical stay-at-home mother doing about 10 tasks every week is, in real salary terms, worth $138,095. I'm not saying day care should cost over a hundred grand a year, but it does seem to say something about how little "women's work" is still valued, at least in American society.

And it tells me something about how little I value my own work, both the parenting and the constantly-shoved-aside creative writing, that $15,000 just seems like an insane amount of money. What are we worth? As mothers, as thinkers, as human beings playing roles in an intricate web of communities and social constructs? The answer is -- we're worth more than we think, but nobody's going to hand us free time and intellectual stimulation on a silver platter. We have to learn to ask for it. And to do that, we have to learn to value ourselves.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why are kids always sick? Stress research in primates might point to an answer.

Most parents will know what I'm talking about when I say, in response when people ask how my son is, "He's between colds." That's the answer I give if he's not actually sick, either with a cold or some random virus that doctors just shrug at and say he seems to be fighting it off okay.

Kids are always sick. This seems to be a fact of life, at least life in the Western world, which is where most of my experience is limited to. Whenever I take John to a toddler group, or invite people with kids over for dinner, it's almost guaranteed that he will come down with something about 24 to 48 hours later.

It seems like a remarkably stupid decision of evolution (like teething, also designed poorly, as it drives everyone to distraction and keeps me, at least, from wholeheartedly fulfilling my son's needs) that I generally come down with exactly what he has at just the time he most needs me to be fully functional.

(Pause while I read John the soft piggy book five times in a row, and then wipe the accumulated snot off his face.)

The question is, why? I was talking about this with my sister a few weeks ago. We all take our children's constant minor and exasperating illnesses as a matter of course, but it suddenly struck me as very odd. So I've been asking everyone I know -- do humans actually get sick a great deal more than other animals? And if we do, it really leaves you wondering not only why, but how on earth we've survived this long.

Nobody seems to have an answer, although I've come across one possible explanation. (The surprising part about this unscientific survey is that the question doesn't seem to have occurred to many people, which tells you something about how mentally exhausted most otherwise intelligent parents are.)

In a 2007 article on Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, discusses his decades-long research on the social behavior of primates, and the greater incidence of stress-related diseases among primates and humans. His words put it best: "Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out," he said. "But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."

Higher stress levels are certainly a factor in reduced immune system function, which could explain why I've spent the last two days blowing my own nose as well as wiping my son's, although I don't think it gets into the issue of why human children get sick so frequently in the first place. Sapolsky's research, at least in this article, focuses more on stress-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

So I'm still asking the question: why the heck is my kid's best health simply "he's between colds"?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Stolen future: does religious freedom harm children's rights?

Some time ago a friend lent me a book called Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (written by Hella Winston), and reading it led me to question some firmly held beliefs about freedom of religion.

Having been raised in a democracy and school-nursed on the American concept that the Bill of Rights and Constitution are sacrosanct and untouchable, I never really delved into the concept of religious freedom. Unchosen forced me to go there.

Freedom of religion as applies simply to independent adults is easy enough to grasp. We should all be free to practice whatever religion suits our fancy, as long as it doesn't actively hurt anyone else. That means that my mother can waft her way into shamanism, my neighbor can practice his run-of-the-mill Presbyterianism, my friends can howl at the moon every month, and I can remain an atheist. Despite the rise of megachurches and hard-core right-wing evangelists in the US, we've all rubbed along together fairly well.

But what's pulled me up is the question of children. American custom, at least, has always held to the belief that parents should be allowed to bring up their children in the religion--or lack thereof--of the parents' choice, as long as it doesn't involve harming said children. The cults in which prepubescent girls are forced to marry older male leaders being a case of unacceptable.

When it comes to mental hurt or injury, outside of brainwashing, things get a little murkier. That's the road this reading has sent me down.

Unchosen is the first in-depth book I've ever read of a notoriously closed religion, Hasidic Judaism. (Despite the fact that my father's parents were raised in Ukrainian Jewish ghettoes, I know next to zilch about Orthodox practices and beliefs. He, after all, was raised atheist, which tells you something about how much his parents loved their upbringing.) It chronicles the lives of several young adults in the Hasidic community of Brooklyn, a burb of New York City. Raised in strict traditional fashion, a young man studies religious texts and becomes a tutor of the same, and a young woman shaves off all her hair when entering marriage.

A few years down the road, at the time the author met these people, they have individually been nudging the edges of the outside world for some time, having realized, in their mid-twenties, that there's a whole lot more out there than they can find on their neighborhood streets. More people, more ways of thinking, more ways of living.

The problem is, none of these people are equipped with the social, economic, or educational tools needed to survive in that outside world. The women the author meets have only a 4th-grade education. The men have what run-of-the-mill secular Westerners might deem a warped view of sex and sexuality. Many of the men and women barely speak English. Not a one of them is trained in any useful trade or skill beyond reading Hebrew, caring for children, or basic carpentry, this in the center of one of the world's great metropolises of opportunity.

After finishing the book, I was left with the feeling that, by giving adults the freedom to raise their children in their own religion, and by allowing them to keep their children from contact with the outside world, we have, by societal assent, stolen these people's freedom to choose almost anything once they become adults.

Western societies have for some time agreed that every child must have a minimal education. In America the idea is that the education gives them a chance to craft a future on par with their peers. When did we allow freedom of religious upbringing to trump children's chances to craft their own futures? What kind of future can a child have when their parents and immediate surrounding culture prevent them from learning the language of the country they're living in, much less its customs, mores, and skills required to make a living?

This look at Hasidic Judaism led me to think about other even more pleasant-looking cultures, such as the Amish or Hutterite communities. How many adults are simmering away under religious restriction, chafing at the traditions they were raised in but lacking the skills and knowledge to make other choices?

There's a flip side to this, too. As an atheist, I have no particular interest in taking my child to church down the road. As a secular humanist, though, I am conscious of wanting him to make his own choices, and certainly of the need to be educated in the religious cultures and beliefs of the society we live in, as well as others. At some point he'll probably attend Sunday School and we'll delve into knotty Bible questions ("Yes, some people do believe that God created the whole world in 7 days." Pause. "No, mummy doesn't believe in that." Pause. "Well, I don't think that really makes mummy wicked. That's probably not what they meant." Fear crawls over child's face. "No, mummy doesn't believe she's going to hell, either." Oh, shit. "Honey, don't cry, mummy's not going anywhere where she'll get burnt. Neither are you." Hugs, sobs, days of disbelief and worry on child's part follow. "I think we'll try a different church this time. Isn't there a book of Bible stories that doesn't scare the crap off kids?"). How many other atheists out there, though, will give their children that freedom?

Children might be dependent on their parents, but one day they will become adults. Are the rights of parents eternally shortchanging the rights of future generations? Where do we draw the line between religion freedom and individual freedom?